Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - Part 5
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Chapter 2. Papias on the Eyewitnesses continued
The final section of this chapter concerns an analysis of the difference between the scholarly understanding of ‘oral tradition’ and ‘oral history’. Part of the importance of the association of Papias’ statement with Luke’s Prologue is that ‘these informants - whether the Twelve or other disciples - were not only eyewitnesses but also prominent teachers in the early Christian movement’. However, the assumption in most scholarly discussion concerning the transmission of Jesus traditions orally is that this took place in collective groups, in the collective memories of anonymous communities, rather than with individual carriers of tradition, and thus ‘presupposes that the origins of the traditions were far removed, by many stages of transmission, from the form the traditions would have taken by the later first century’ [italics his]. Bauckham’s analysis of Papias’ statement is clear evidence against this assumption.
Furthermore, and building on the work of Jan Vansina, Bauckham’s exegesis of Papias stresses the difference between what may be called oral tradition and oral history. And later on, through an analysis of material in Josephus (C. Ap. 1.49-50 and Life 361) and the use of the word paradosis, Bauckham will point out that association of ‘oral tradition’ with cross-generational distance and orality to the exclusion of written records is an anachronism. Essentially, and citing Vansina, the difference may be understood as follows:
‘The sources of oral historians are reminiscences, hearsay, or eyewitness accounts about events and situations which are contemporary, that is, which occurred during the lifetime of the informants. This differs from oral tradition in that oral traditions are no longer contemporary’While it is clear that Papias was collecting sayings at a time ‘oral history’ as defined above was becoming impossible, and thus dealt with traditions that were being transmitted beyond the lifetime of the original eyewitness, ‘we can certainly suppose that Papias, with his aspirations to best historical practice, would have valued particularly those traditions that the Elders had received directly from named disciples of Jesus’. Papias was concerned to hear what the elders said the disciples said/were saying, and not what surfaced in the collective memory of churches. While such community tradition certainly existed, this did not, and this is Bauckham’s argument in a nutshell, exclude or take the place of individual carriers of tradition.[Hence contra Dunn: J. D. G. Dunn, 'On History, Memory and Eyewitnesses: In Response to Bengt Holmberg and Samuel Byrskog,' JSNT 26 (2004) 483-484 and Jesus Remembered [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003] 198-199 n. 138] Indeed, the general scholarly presuppositions about oral transmission neglect the importance played by often very mobile individual leaders. [I refer the reader to the book edited by Bauckham in which it was argued that ‘the Gospels were written with the intention that they should circulate around all the churches’, and not simply for a specific church or group of churches such as the so-called Markan community, Johannine community etc (The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences, ed. Bauckham [Edinburgh, T&T Clark: 1998], p. 1)].
Through a brief analysis of Irenaeus’ recollection of Polycarp, Bauckham can also claim that the model of tradition transmission pursued in his thesis – through named individuals – is one ‘with which later second-century Christian writers worked’, a model also shared with second-century Gnostic teachers. But of course the important question is whether the analysis of the handling of tradition by Papias is really applicable to the Gospels:
‘We might well ask why, if Gospel traditions were known as the traditions told by specific named eyewitnesses, they are not attached to such names in the Gospels themselves? Perhaps they are. Perhaps we need to look at the names in the Gospels more carefully and with fresh questions’.In the following chapters Bauckham will address just such concerns.